Furnishing with care 
© Robert Anderson PhD
Originally published in Organic NZ
   There was a time when furnishing one's home was both a challenge and a pleasure.  Choosing colours, matching curtains with cushions, refurbishing kitchens were all part and parcel of the creative art of furnishing a home so as to leave one’s personal stamp on it.  Now, like so many things in our modern world, there are a few dangers that require attention to their safety.  It is a sad fact that, with our abundance of choice, comes that added responsibility.
Paints and painting
   There is little doubt that our modern colour charts would bring tears of joy to Picasso; never has there been such choice.  Fortunately, in this sphere there is not much to cause harm.  Indeed, water-based paints are now a triumph of the paint industry.  On the other hand, oil-based paints can be a worry.  The pigments of most of these no longer contain ‘lead’ oxides and so are safe in this respect.  Fumes are another matter.  As well as avoiding breathing any polyurethane fumes, it should not be sprayed.  Needless to say, pregnant mothers and infants should not be allowed near the fumes.  I have two friends who have their doctors warning:  “You breathe that again and you’re a hospital case.”  Fortunately, few of us are that sensitive, but we should be aware that this sensitivity can build up. 
   Different paint products such as epoxy urea-formaldehyde, oil-based, etc. use different ingredients, so it is difficult to comment on the health effects of paint in general, but a point worth noting with the increasing use of Polyurethane is the fire risk.  Many products - including drapes, furniture foams, wood finishes, sealants, and many others - use polyurethane in some form or another.  When burned, these materials can produce some dangerous products such as hydrogen cyanide and phosgene.  Exposure to these gases can be deadlyi so if safer alternatives are available they should be the first choice.
   Mercury, which is poisonous, has been known to be used in some mildew-resistant paints, but the paints that pose the most danger are of the epoxy type.  Free isocyanates being released from epoxy paint applied in a poorly ventilated area can be literally lethal – as was almost the case of my two colleagues.
   A further point, if you are getting the pleasure of painting yourself, take care with brush cleaners and thinners.  While turpentine is reasonably innocuous, xylene, toluene and the like are not.  These are often ingredients in brush cleaners and are well known carcinogens.  Their fumes are nasty and they do carry the warning, “Avoid skin contact and breathing vapour.”  Always wash brushes in the open air.
Building materials
   The use of new building and renovation materials, as well as construction practices, are often to blame for releasing unhealthy particles into indoor air.  The problems have increased, too, because of better insulation of rooms for reasons of energy saving and noise abatement.  In our “energy conscious” society we are besieged with adds to encourage insulating our homes - a very sensible move when undergoing major furnishing and upgrades - but beware, now we can run into real hazards. 
   All synthetic mineral fibres, such as fibreglass bats and rockwool insulation, have long been considered carcinogenic and I would regard them as extremely dangerous.ii  The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission of Australiaiii as well as many international researchers and governments have published many documents affirming the dangers of these materials along with the precautions that installers must take when handling these materials.  While industry experts indicate that there is no scientific consensus in this respect, I prefer to err on the side of caution and treat these products as potentially dangerous. 
   Although not banned like asbestos, I believe it is only a matter of time before they are.  The fibreglass manufacturing industry includes many of the same corporations which created the asbestos tragedy, except now these corporations are larger and operate in many countries.  Despite recent bankruptcies, the fibreglass manufacturers retain much wealth, in the form of factories, brand names and distribution channels.  Their influence reaches into universities where their money funds research on the “safety” of their products.  This research may sound scientific, but almost invariably determines the product cannot be proven hazardous.
   I am always appalled to see NZ builders calmly gathering bails of fibreglass into their arms for installation.  New Zealand is the only country that I know of where unprotected fibreglass bats are handled.  Many countries stipulate they must be securely enclosed.  We all know that sharp shards of glass can cut skin and flesh.  Imagine what thousands of tiny fibres can do your lungs.  Inhaling microscopic shards of glass possibly coated with phenol-formaldehyde and urea-formaldehyde resins can cause disease.  We should all work to help stop this“man-made asbestos” industry by avoiding this material at all costs.  There are much safer, and I think, more efficient methods.  We have all heard the joke there are more sheep in New Zealand than people.  Fine, let's use wool bats.  Furthermore, wool insulation is hypo-allergenic, environmentally friendly, safe and easily installed.  Wool also is effective in noise reduction, having an R value of 1.5 to 3.0iv (the R-value is the ability of an insulator to resist heat transfer through it.)
   One material that has always caused consternation to me as a material is polystyrene foam board.  Indeed, it is often used to clad an entire house.  There is a fire risk in using this material.  The substance decomposes on heating above 300°C producing toxic fumes, including styrene.  The slabs also decompose on burning to produce irritating fumes.  Styrene gas can be readily absorbed through the skin, respiratory system and gastrointestinal tract.  High doses can cause narcosis (a deep, drug induced unconsciousness) and death.  The vapour can damage the eyes and mucous membranes.v  At least, in New Zealand currently, all expanded polystyrene (EPS)  that is used in buildings has flame retardant chemicals added to it.vi
   Formaldehyde,  chlorinated carbohydrates, solvents, and softeners are harmful substances frequently found indoors. Many of these substances are capable of polluting the air in rooms for days or even years and thus have a damaging effect on the health of people living in them.  One of the worst of these, formaldehyde, is a basic product of the chemical industry, often used in the production of wood glues. Industry applies it in the production of composition board (used in flooring), dyes, carpeting and textiles.  Thus formaldehyde enters the air in our homes continuously, especially through floor composition board and products made of it.  It can also emanate from carpets and insulating foams like urea-formaldehyde resins used in heat conservation.  This is not new.
   The problems linked to formaldehyde became obvious in the 1970s, particularly in Germany.  Teachers and pupils in newly-built schools complained about odours, irritation of mucous membranes and constant headaches.  In 1977, the Federal Department of Healthvii recommended a level of only 0.1 ppm for indoor rooms.  Several cases also surfaced in New Zealand from people in re-furnished and new homes.  A German Research Groupviii in 1980 identified formaldehyde as a product under justifiable suspicion of causing cancer.
   Emission of Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCBs) over a long time is yet a further hazard to the unwary.  Where do they come from?  Without considering their vast commercial usage, they may occur in water-repellent and fire-preventing substances for wood, paper, textiles and leather.  They are also found as an additive in adhesives.  As far back as 1998, the BBC published an article that Britain had been criticised by Sweden for taking too long to act over fire retardant chemicals used in curtains and other textiles that could endanger human health.ix
   PCBs are extremely toxic and hard to eliminate.  The toxicity of PCBs was demonstrated for the first time in 1968 at an accident in Japan. A leaking processing unit emitted PCBs into rice oil causing the poisoning of more than 1500 people.  This accident, recorded in the history books as Yusho-illness, opened the eyes of the public to the alarming problems of PCBs.  There are now real dangers associated with PCBs such as:
* Slow biologic decay in the environment;
* Accumulative effect in the food chain;
* Ubiquity/being everywhere in the environment;
* Chronic toxicity (in repeated tests on animals, liver problems, skin damage, effects on the immune system were observed);
* In case of fire PCBs can under certain conditions, turn into large amounts of Dioxin.
In 1966, PCBs were discovered in the environment and, in 1970, they were discovered for the first time in the fat cells of people.  PCBs are now present in waters, soil, in plants, in humans and animals.  Since PCBs are widely distributed throughout our environment, they have also found their way into the food chain.  Because of PCBs high chemical and bio-chemical stability and good fat soluble qualities, they become an accumulative factor in the food chain, so that, by the end of the food chain, larger predatory animals and humans are much more polluted than plants or water.  Any furnishings or materials that have a hint of such chemical associations should be meticulously shunned.
In conclusion
   Fashions change, dangers come to light –often only after tragic proof.  Entire New Zealand schools were protected from spreading flames by putting asbestos in floor and ceiling tiles.  Asbestos went into everything anybody could think of.  The same went for lead, which helped paint dry faster and more evenly, and could be fashioned into water pipes.  At least today, asbestos and lead are recognized as dangerous materials, and are generally not used in new home constructions.  But other chemicals still are; e.g. antifungal chemicals like formaldehyde, commonly sprayed into carpets and onto furniture are equally dangerous.
   This may sound all to dismal and put the lid firmly on your passion to re-furnish or decorate and brighten up an old home.  However, there are things you can do to protect yourself, and websites that give you all the information you need to get started safely.  Examples would be the US Environmental Hazards in the Homex page, run by HSH Associates, giving you very detailed information on many common dangers.  ConsumerBuild is another site providing clear, independent and up-to-date information to the public about building, renovating and preserving homes in New Zealand.xi  Consumer Onlinexii is another good source, but you need to be a member to access their information.  Their section on paints alone is most informative. 
   Knowing how creative an exercise it is the only other ingredient needed is the enthusiasm to begin and I do hope I haven’t killed that.
Robert Anderson BSc (Hons), PhD - 4 February 1942 to 5 December 2008
Robert Anderson was a Trustee of Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility (formerly Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics) www.psgr.org.nz.  He authored The Final Pollution:  Genetic Apocalypse, Exploding the Myth of Genetic Engineering and several other publications on environmental, scientific, health and social justice issues. 

View his lectures on this website

Address enquiries for Robert Anderson's publications to naturesstar@xtra.co.nz.

[i] The Merck Index, 11th edition, 1989
[ii]  The German Government experts considered that there was a proven link between biosolubility, biopersistence and carcinogenicity and the Government expert noted that his country’s regulations and the European Union’s Directive (97/67/EC, 23rd Adapt.) were based on this. www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/gb/docs/gb277/pdf/stm-6a1.pdf
[v] Listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1990 Clean Air Act. (Harte, Holdren, Schneider & Shirley, Toxics A to Z, 1991, pp.403-404).
[vi]  Performance of expanded polystyrene insulated panel www.civil.canterbury.ac.nz/fire/pdfreports/GBaker_02.pdf
[vii]  Bundesgesundheitsamt
[viii]  Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
[ix]  Health Row over fire retardant chemicals,  Wednesday, September 2, 1998 BBC
[x]  http://library.hsh.com/?row_id=77
[xi]  ConsumerBuild, http://www.consumerbuild.org.nz/publish/